National parks aren't as pristine as we think

Ever since Congress created it in 1916, the National Park Service has guarded some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery, leaving it, at least seemingly, unimpaired. Sure, park officials invited guests in as they promoted “the enjoyment of future generations,” but human enterprise was meant to be confined to the hotels, visitor centers and roads in small portions of parks.

In this telling, America’s national parks remain wild and untouched. But that story is too simple. Parks always have been imperfect vehicles for noble protectionism — and few places demonstrate this as well as the Rocky Mountain region of northwestern Montana known today as Glacier National Park.

This special place has glaciers, of course, and rugged peaks, hundreds of lakes and almost 3,000 miles of streams; it spans more than a million acres and straddles the Continental Divide. For many Americans, Glacier has long represented a wilderness frontier where unadulterated nature reigns.

But, in fact, human history and culture permeate Glacier, a place shaped by Native Americans’ dependence on the land, conservationists’ efforts to enshrine its beauty and corporate America’s exploitation of its treasures.

Glacier owed its establishment to George Bird Grinnell, a New York scientist and conservationist who first visited northwestern Montana in 1885. He climbed the mountains, hunted bighorn sheep, fished trout and saw glaciers (including what is now known as Grinnell Glacier). And In his writings, Grinnell ignored plain evidence of the human impacts that had been wrought there by native peoples, choosing instead to wax poetic about nature alone.

As historian Mark David Spence revealed in “Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks,” Grinnell relied on Blackfeet guides to accompany him over ridges and along Indian trails, but in his journal, he wrote of these places as “absolutely virgin ground … with no sign of previous passage.” A short time later, Grinnell wrote about the native hunting camps in the area. That Grinnell could both share in indigenous presence and not acknowledge its role in shaping the land represented cognitive dissonance of a high order. His rhetorical erasure of obvious human impact became a model for how Americans thought of national parks: unpeopled, untouched — in short, pure nature.

Grinnell wanted to create a nature reserve to protect the eastern flank of the Rockies. Doing so, however, would require wresting the land from the Blackfeet. During a trip in 1891, he hit upon a way to smooth the process: Get the U.S. government to obtain the land in a would-be bid for its natural resources. At the time, many prospectors were hoping to find rich mineral deposits. U.S. officials, too, were suspicious of the miners, whose disorderly behavior posed a threat to tenuous peace on the Blackfeet Reservation.

On behalf of the federal government, Grinnell helped negotiate the cession of Blackfeet lands to open some 800,000 acres to prospecting. In short, but tense, negotiations in 1895, the Blackfeet got the government to raise its payment for the cession to $1.5 million and ensured that tribal members could continue cutting timber, hunting and fishing in the ceded area while it remained public land. Selling the land without maintaining access to such resources would have been unthinkable for tribal leaders, according to historian Louis Warren.

Within two years of completing the negotiations, the land became part of the Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve. Soon nature lovers began debating and restricting the Blackfeet’s rights to cut timber and take animals. Disagreements continued for decades, intensifying once Congress fulfilled Grinnell’s long-held dream and made Glacier a national park in 1910.

Glacier National Park’s backcountry trails and glacier-fed streams made it ideal for well-heeled tourists. The newly-built Glacier Park Hotel and Many Glacier Hotel offered first-class accommodations with rustic touches, including giant logs commanding the so-called Forest Lobby. Blackfeet artifacts were ubiquitous. A teepee village on the hotel lawn offered families four beds and an authentic Western outdoors experience for $0.50 a night.

Today, Glacier National Park faces many threats, not least among them climate change, which is shrinking the region’s namesake ice sheets. Some scientists predict that Glacier National Park will be glacier-free by the time a child conceived today is eligible to drive a car. Tourists, hoping to see the glaciers before they’re gone, flock to the park, consuming fossil fuels that accelerate the warming that melts the glaciers away. So much for wild and untouched.

Adam M. Sowards (Twitter @AdamMSowards) is an environmental historian, professor and writer. He originally wrote this essay for Zocalo Public Square.

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